Amateurs Once More

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 June 2001

The internet is for amateurs. No, that’s not an insult, but high praise. “Amateurs,” by definition, do what they do for the love of it. Because it’s fun, social, enriching, transformational, evolutionary, or even just beautiful. Now that the investment community sees the net is seen as more of a lame duck than a cash cow, the only ones left out here (or the only ones that should be) are us amateurs.

How dare I raise myself to the same level as amateurs? I get paid for most of what I do online. Doesn’t this make me a lowly professional? I say “no.” The point is to do what we do online because we love it - whether or not someone agrees to pay us. Anything done in this very transparent medium for any other reason gets exposed. It’s as if the more active mindset we use to navigate internet allows us to detect the intentions of its many posters and publishers. If there’s no real passion for anything but revenue, we know it. We can smell it.

But maybe some of us have our BS detectors on too high. So much of the online space is basically a business plan of one kind or another, that we don’t expect any “professional” effort to have amateur roots. This is a shame. And I’ve gotten a taste of it, first-hand.

I’m in the process of releasing my book, “Exit Strategy,” online as an open source novel. (It’s already been published as printed novel, “Bull,” in the UK.) It’s going up on Yahoo Internet Life’s web site ( in 14 weekly installments. The story I wrote is merely the starting place for what I hope will be a lively interaction between everyone.

The premise is that the entire text was written in present day, but then hidden online and only discovered 200 years from now. Because society has changed so much, an anthropologist has annotated the text for his 23rd Century contemporaries. They are no longer familiar with notions such as venture capital or advertising, much less Microsoft or NASDAQ.

The project is “open source” in that all the online participants get to add their own footnotes to anything in the book - even footnotes to the footnotes. It’s a way to pretend how people from the future will relate to our current obsessions. Instead of describing that future, though, we get to suggest what it will be like by highlighting the facts and ideas that future readers won’t understand. We’ll all be part of the annotation process, and comment on one another’s work. Then next year, I’ll release an open source edition of the text - an e-book and print-on-demand - with 100 of the most compelling footnotes added byreaders. I’ll buy the authors copies of the book, and throw them a party in New York.

But how do you feel right now reading about this? Are you thinking, “Rushkoff’s got a good idea, there,” or are you thinking “how dare Rushkoff promote his online scam in his column!” And there’s the problem. It’s why I wrote the book, actually, and it’s the challenge I’m facing in talking about it with the press.

The journalists who have interviewed me about the open source project, with very few exceptions, can’t see it as anything but a covert business plan. They find it hard to believe that no one is paying me for the web project, or that people will really be able to read the entire book, online, for free. They think there must be a catch. Why would a successful author bother to distribute his work online for free when he could get real money for it in print? Even Stephen King charged money for his online works (and then quit before he was done).

It’s precisely because I’m a successful author that I can release a book for free. I’ve got a roof over my head and another proposal under my arm. I can make a living even if I give away a book or two along the way. And, if we really want to play “name my business plan,” my guess is that the final print-on-demand version of the open source book will do just fine, thank you (even though, so far, no traditional US publisher has dared to make an offer on a book that will be released, for free, online before it is released in print.

So, if you need a market justification for what I’m doing - with my book or with this column - use that one. But you’ll be missing the point of both.

The interactive mediaspace is offering us something so much more precious than profit, and more authentic than authorship. It’s an opportunity to play and collaborate. That’s the theme of my book, the reason it’s going online, and the reason I’m telling you about it here: because people are so trained to associate the internet with business plans that they can’t think of the internet any other way, even though the speculators have all set sail. Alas, it’s a troubling legacy they’ve left in their wake.

We’ve forgotten what made this medium so truly sexy to begin with. But don’t worry, we still have it in our power to be reborn as unqualified amateurs. Then we can fall in love all over again.